The Portland Trail Blazers showed up to the Moda Center tonight to face the Denver Nuggets with a lineup long on hustle, longer on heart, but short on experience and proven talent. With Denver packing mean intentions along the road to the 2022 NBA Playoffs and Portland an afterthought in that discussion, the game went about as you’d expect. The Nuggets steamrolled the Blazers 124-92.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. If you’d rather pay attention to interesting sidelines than results—a much safer approach right now—here are a few items to ponder.
For most of the season, and really for most of the last decade, the Blazers have lacked defense. If you needed 120, Portland was your team. Need a stop instead? This isn’t that kind of place.
With practically everyone who’s ever averaged more than 10 points in the NBA now out of their lineup, the Blazers are also hard up for scoring nowadays. They can leap. They get separation. They’re not bad at converting layups. Anything outside of two feet for anyone but Anfernee Simons is ouchy.
Watching Portland shoot 36.7% from the field isn’t awful. It’s a shock to the system—those uniforms do not match up with that production—but you kind of expect it.
Watching them shoot 16.7% from the three-point arc IS kind of ugly, though. That’s a big part of their problem, and the issue isn’t going away anytime soon.
To put things in perspective, Anfernee Simons scored 16 tonight. That made him the 4th leading scorer in the game. Leading scorers 1-3 and 5-6 all played for Denver.
Portland’s defense still isn’t great, even with this quicker, younger crew. Denver shot 51.2% from the field, and that’s even with them missing some easy attempts.
But the Blazers are evidencing two characteristics that bode well for future defensive efforts, should they persist.
First, they stay active. They got beat on plenty of plays. Denver found it comically easy to pass around them. But the Nuggets scored against defenders whose feet were moving, not defenders who had given up.
Second, the Blazers are eager to help each other. Whenever a defender slows a driver—which happens more now than it used to—a teammate is not far behind.
Activity and camaraderie are not, in themselves, good defense. But it’s hard to have good defense without them.
Keying on Simons
The Blazers Broadcast team emphasized a good point tonight. Opposing defenses have started to key in on Simons. That’s not surprising. He’s pretty much the only serious scoring threat on the floor for Portland. He’s seeing box-and-one, double-teams, and plenty of fakes towards his position. It’s clear that this is going to be his next test, and hopefully his next evolution. He’ll never get more attention than he’s getting right now.
Despite being undersized, the Blazers acquitted themselves well on the offensive glass against Denver. Granted, shooting poorly gave them plenty of attempts at it, but they still keyed in on those second chances. They grabbed 11 offensive rebounds, another mark of their all-energy, all-the-time approach.
As we’ve chronicled since the trade deadline, transition offense is now a hallmark of Portland’s attack. Tonight continued the theme. They scored 18 on the break, 20% of their total points.
The Blazers also gave up 26 on the break, and therein lies the rub. In the old days, when the Blazers were a halfcourt-only team, they’d score 4 in transition and allow 10. Basically they’re getting the same results now, just faster.
One of the big questions for Portland will be whether they can keep up tempo and energy when they integrate new and/or old personnel. If so, their next big challenge will be not giving up as many points as they score in the process, actually making a difference with their speed.
Nikola Jokic could have had a triple-triple tonight had he cared to. He finished the game with 8 points, 18 rebounds, and 11 assists in 26 minutes.
When Jokic sat, DeMarcus Cousins filled in admirably at the center position, scoring 19 on 7-10 shooting. Perhaps nothing shows Portland’s current predicament better than Denver’s backup center looking more like the guy who was once Sacramento’s All-Star.
That Portland has nothing comparable to Jokic is understandable. Who, outside of the Philadelphia 76’ers, does? That Portland has nothing comparable to Boogie Cousins says everything you need to know about the rotation right now.
Keon Johnson Starts
Keon Johnson got the start tonight. He hit his first couple shots and moved around plenty on both ends. You can see his athleticism bubbling under the surface. If he can harness it...ok?
Further evidence of how much the Blazers need big-man help right now...
The Nuggets field two power forwards named Green: Jeff and JaMychal. Neither is setting the world on fire this season, nor are they expected to. Jeff scored 14 tonight, JaMychal a game-high 20.
The Blazers will take to the road to face the Phoenix Suns at 7:00, Pacific on Wednesday night.